An independent organization has suggested that China increased its capacity for power by as much as 12 Gigawatts last year. For the sake of comparison, that is 2 Gigawatts more than the entire solar capacity of the US. It represents three times British capacity. While the number comes with some caveats—at least 30% of this capacity is still not connected to the grid, and China is still the world’s greatest greenhouse gas emitter—it’s important not to lose sight of the positive. With the right incentives in place, adding solar capacity to the grid can be made attractive to utilities at huge scales. But it takes a concerted national renewables policy, something that American politicians seem incapable of mustering — to the detriment of US manufacturing and households.
China installed a record 12GW of solar power in 2013, doubling its rate of solar installations, according to preliminary figures. This is more than has ever been installed by any country in a single year and means that China installed three times more solar energy in 2013 than the total UK solar capacity.
No country has ever added more than 8GW of solar power in one year before, according to an analysis by Li Shuo, a policy and energy analyst at Greenpeace East Asia. It is also more solar than China had installed in all the years prior to 2013 put together, according to Li.
The preliminary solar figures are estimated by Bloomberg New Energy Finance (BNEF) which tracks energy figures globally. According to BNEF, this figure may even rise to 14GW due to a rush to install solar energy towards the end of 2013 due to a feed-in tariff for large photovoltaic projects coming to an end by January 1. A final figure is expected by March.
Other estimates have put the figure lower but these could also rise due to the end of year increase. The Chinese Renewable Energy Industries Association (CREIA) put the figure at 10.7GW and Chinese media has quoted industry sources putting the figure at at least 9.5GW.
Li explained that a lot of figures are based on the first ten or eleven months of the year with a projection for December. “There was definitely a rush in the last two months of the year in ramping up solar installation capacity,” he said because of the tariff ending by the end of the year “a lot of solar developers were in a hurry”.
“The 2013 figures show the astonishing scale of the Chinese market, now the sleeping dragon has awoken” said Jenny Chase, head of solar analysis at BNEF in a press release.
“PV is becoming ever cheaper and simpler to install, and China’s government has been as surprised as European governments by how quickly it can be deployed in response to incentives.”
In total China added just over 100GW of new power generation capacity in 2013. According to figures from BNEF, this is larger than the entire electricity capacity of the UK or South Korea. Coal still remains China’s main power source with 39.7GW coal-fired capacity installed last year. Hydro power saw the next largest increase last year with 30.5GW added while wind saw 14.1GW added.
Increasing its solar capacity is part of China’s plan to increase the amount of renewable energy it uses as it attempts to move away from coal as its primary power source. Li said that while coal still accounts for the major of China’s power, it is reducing as the country’s overall energy appetite reduces.
The high levels of air pollution which plague many of China’s cities is putting pressure on the government to reduce coal consumption and in some of the worst hit areas there is now a ban on new coal power plants.
An issue in China with renewable energy is in relation to connection to the grid. It is particularly a problem with wind energy and some wind farms in remote areas of the country remain unconnected. According to a spokesperson for Bloomberg, approximately 30% of the solar power installed in 2013 is still waiting connection. However they added that most solar developers are not worried and it is a matter of time before connection occurs and not a question of it it will occur.
Li said that the problem of connecting to the grid “is being resolved in quite a big way over the past two years. The government is offering a financial incentive for the grid to expand their network”.
Most of China’s solar installations are large-scale projects, the majority of which are based in the sunny western provinces of Gansu, Xinjiang and Qinghai. However, the Chinese government is planning a push for next year to increase the number of rooftop installations.
The Chinese government is targeting up to 14GW of additional solar capacity this year, 60% of which they are aiming to be from roop-top installations rather than large-scale projects. According to BNEF, this will bring “additional legal and financial complications for developers” and they predict that this target will not be met but that there will be higher growth in 2015.